Despite the Middle East’s reputation as difficult terrain for women travellers, there’s no reason why women can’t enjoy the region as much as their male counterparts. In fact, some seasoned women travellers to the Middle East consider their gender to be a help, not a hindrance.
Your experience of travelling in the region may depend partly on situations beyond your control, but there are some things you can try so as to minimise problems:
For many people in the region, both men and women, the role of a woman is specifically defined: she is mother and matron of the household, while the man is the provider. Generalisations can, however, be misleading and the reality is often far more nuanced.
There are thousands of middle- and upper-middle-class professional women in the Arab World and elsewhere who, like their counterparts in the West, juggle work and family responsibilities. Among the working classes or in conservative rural areas where adherence to tradition is strongest, the ideal may be for women to concentrate on home and family, but economic reality means that millions of women are forced to work (but are still responsible for all domestic chores).
Contrary to stereotypes, the treatment of foreign women can be at its best in more conservative societies, providing, of course, you adhere to the prevailing social mores.
The treatment of women can also be a factor of age: older women will find they are greatly respected and may encounter fewer uncomfortable situations than younger women travellers.
When it comes to sex, the differences between Western and Middle Eastern women become most apparent. Premarital sex (or, indeed, any sex outside marriage) is taboo in most of the region. With occasional exceptions among the upper classes, women are expected to be virgins when they marry, and a family’s reputation can rest upon this.
The presence of foreign women presents, in the eyes of some Middle Eastern men, a chance to get around these norms with ease and without consequences, a perception reinforced by distorted impressions gained from Western TV and the behaviour of a small number of women travellers.
Fair or not, how women travellers dress goes a long way towards determining how they’re treated. To you, short pants and a tight top might be an appropriate reaction to the desert temperatures, but to many local men, your dress choice will send an entirely different message, confirming the worst views held of Western women.
The best way to tackle the stereotypes is to visibly debunk them. Do as the locals do, and dress and behave more modestly than you might at home and always err on the side of caution. As with anywhere, take your cues from those around you.
Dressing modestly means covering your upper legs and arms, shoulders and cleavage. A scarf is also useful, both to cover your neckline and to slip over your head when you want to look even more inconspicuous or when the occasion requires it (such as when visiting a mosque).
For all the inconvenience, dressing conservatively means you’ll get a much warmer reception from the locals, you’ll attract less unwanted attention, and you may feel more comfortable (long baggy clothes will keep you cooler under the fierce Middle Eastern sun).
In Iran, most female travellers will find dress rules to be both an imposition and an inconvenience. Since the revolution of 1979 all women in Iran, including foreigners, have been required by law to wear loose-fitting clothes to disguise their figures and must also cover their hair. This form of dressing is known as hijab, a term that refers in general to ‘modest’ dress, and is also used to refer specifically to the hair-covering.
Signs in public places show officially acceptable versions of hijab: the chador (literally ‘tent’ in Farsi), an all-encompassing, head-to-toe black garment held closed with hand or teeth; or a manteau (shapeless coat or coat dress) and a rusari (scarf) covering the hair and neck.
Sexual harassment is a problem worldwide and the Middle East is no exception. Harassment can come in many forms: from stares, muttered comments and uncomfortably close contact on crowded public transport, to the difficulty of eating in public on your own, where you may receive endless unwanted guests – even the wandering hands of waiters can be a problem. Women also report being followed and hissed at by unwanted male admirers on a fairly regular basis.
That said, although ‘mild’ harassment can be common in some countries, reports of serious physical harassment are rare. Whether that's because it rarely occurs or because it's rarely reported varies greatly from country to country. Significant social stigma attaches to sexual harassment in many Middle Eastern countries.
Women travellers are no different from their male counterparts in that meeting local people is a highlight of travelling in the Middle East. And unlike male travellers, they can meet Middle Eastern women without social restrictions, opening up a whole Middle Eastern world that men cannot experience. Local women are as curious about life for women beyond the Middle East as you are about their lives, and they love to chat to women visitors. That said, local women are less likely than men to have had an education that included learning English – you’ll find this to be the only major barrier to getting to meet and talk with them.
One other advantage, and one you should exploit to the full, is that in some countries it’s often perfectly acceptable for a woman to go straight to the front of a queue or ask to be served first. This is less likely to occur in Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Iran.